LANSING, Mich. - Pam Kirchens believes that a free quality public education is the cornerstone of a democratic society and that every child in Michigan deserves access to equal and excellent public education. That's why she joined with others to form a grassroots group called Save Michigan's Public Schools. On Wednesday, Kirchens and several thousand others rallied at the state Capitol here to deliver that message.
The June 19 rally came about, she said, out of a group of seven or eight teachers, parents and concerned citizens were alarmed about the attacks on public education in Michigan. They started meeting monthly at a deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., and came up with the idea of holding a rally.
"It was total grassroots, we have no money," Kirchens said.
With a Republican-dominated and tea-party influenced legislature, Michigan Republicans are dismantling public education by defunding it, setting up state-controlled school districts that eliminate collective bargaining and seniority, and advocating unlimited numbers of charter and online schools.
Educators and the public were incensed by the recent comments of Republican state Rep. Lisa Lyons, the House Education Committee Chairperson. Talking about the dissolution of the financially troubled Buena Vista and Inkster school districts, Lyons, in response to school employee concerns that they would not have jobs in the new districts where pupils were sent, said from the House floor, "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered."
Several demonstrators at the Capitol held signs showing their anger with the crude insult.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer told the crowd it is no wonder the state's schools are in financial crisis. Referring to the current governor, Republican Rick Snyder, Shauer said, "The governor took $1 billion from public schools to help pay for a $1.8 billion corporate dollar tax cut."
Republicans place "profit over people and kids," Schauer said. "Education Inc. is their agenda."
Two public high school students made strong impressions on the rally participants. Billy Dering, a flute player in his Ann Arbor high school marching band, told the crowd he has Tourette's syndrome, a neural disorder. He confidently explained why a comprehensive education, one that includes art, physical education and music, is so necessary. Music helps him coordinate his movements, keep his focus, and alleviate some of his symptoms, he said.
"For all children, with or without disabilities, music helps them become stronger students," Dering said.
Dustin Hazen, a student at Portland, Mich., High School, said "for starters" that he does not agree with the privatization of public schools. "Our governor says he only privatizes public schools because they are financially stressed or because teachers are failing their students," he said. "How can schools function if they are not properly funded?"
Voicing his concern about the governor's advocacy of online courses Hazen said, "I may be just a kid, but I know I don't want my most inspiring teacher to be a computer."
Photo: A participant at the Save Michigan's Public Schools rally, June 19, Lansing, Mich., shows her anger at the insulting comment by Republican legislator Lisa Lyons. April Smith/PW